Monday, July 22, 2024

The Emmy™Award-Winning Documentary Film

"Broadcast" version now airing on most public television stations.

"Uncensored" version now on DVD and in film festivals.

Synopsis: A charismatic figure featured in Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff, Florence "Pancho" Barnes was one of the most important women in 20th Century aviation. A tough and fearless aviatrix, Pancho was a rival of Amelia Earhart's who made a name for herself as Hollywood's first female stunt pilot. Just before WWII she opened a ranch near Edwards Air Force Base that became a famous -- some would say notorious -- hangout for test pilots and movie stars. Known as the "Happy Bottom Riding Club", it became the epicenter of the aviation world during the early jet age. Chuck Yeager celebrated breaking the sound barrier there in 1947, and Howard Hughes and Jimmy Doolittle caroused in the bar. The Club's destruction by fire in 1953 is seen by many to mark the end of a Golden Era in post-WWII aviation. In the same fashion Pancho herself has become something of a legend, a fascinating yet enigmatic icon whose swagger is often celebrated, but whose story has been largely unknown. Until now.

A documentary film produced and written by Nick Spark and directed by Amanda Pope. Featuring interviews with test pilots Bob Cardenas, Bob Hoover and Chuck Yeager, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and biographers Barbara Schultz and Lauren Kessler. Narrated by Tom Skerritt with Kathy Bates as the voice of Pancho Barnes.

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Women in Aviation
"Read Nick Spark's article about Pancho
from Women in Aviation magazine (.pdf)"
16 July 2008

Visuals for Pancho

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When you're making a documentary about events and people from long ago, one of the frustrations or limitations, is the visual material you're able to obtain. In our case, we're using hundreds of photos, dozens of newspaper headlines, and miles of historic motion picture film footage to tell Pancho's story. But there are some stories for which little or no visual information exists. What to do then?

A great example comes out of Pancho's life in the roaring 20's. At that time, she was heavily involved in the Hollywood scene. Plenty of photos exist of Pancho and her friend Ramon Novarro -- the star of "Ben Hur" and "The Flying Fleet". Photos (above and below): Brian Frank sketches for the small screen.

Wallace Beery ("The Big House" and "Hell Divers") appears in a few photos taken at one of Pancho's parties, as do a couple of other stars. But, despite a lot of looking, we couldn't find any photos of Pancho and Erich von Stroheim...a man best known perhaps for his portrayal of the butler Max in Sunset Blvd. but also an incredibly accomplished director.

It was really frustrating not to have photos of Pancho with Von Stroheim, because from early on he was a character we hoped to include in the film.

Reason being... back in the 1970's, aviation historian James Farmer (author of Celluloid Wings) did an interview with Pancho, and one of the parts that stood out was where she spoke about her love/hate relationship with the temperamental Austrian. The two knew each other from way back. Before he was one of Hollywood's biggest names, believe it or not, Von Stroheim worked as a groom Pancho's family stables. He was used to shoveling offal, and used to be able to sling it as well: he cultivated a reputation in the media that he was the son of an Austrian count, when in fact he was just a poor tailor's son. Well -- these things are par for the course in Hollywood, then or now!

Von Stroheim had a terrible reputation for arguing with actors and actresses on the set, something that Pancho alluded to when she spoke with James Farmer. "I wouldn't call [Von Stroheim] exactly arrogant," she said, "But he'd fight with his employees. And just tear 'em to pieces, not because he wanted to fight with them, but because he would be able to bring out certain reactions. Like, he'd bring Greta (Garbo) to tears. When she was crying in the picture it was no fake -- she was crying."

Pancho went on to explain how she and Von Stroheim got in a terrible, terrible argument with each other. I'll leave the amazing details for you to enjoy when you see the film, but suffice it to say, they had a confrontation that escalated to something physical, and Von Stroheim got the worse of it!

It was a story we desperately wanted to tell, but without any photos of Pancho or Von Stroheim, how to do it?

Well, you know how they say, no experience is wasted in life? Nearly ten years ago, I worked in the advertising business. I feel like I literally lost a couple of years of my life, trying to help sell health insurance to consumers. Well, back in those days, we used to make "animatics". These were cartoons, made from storyboards -- the detailed, cartoon-like diagrams directors often use during pre-production. Sometimes the animatics came out looking better than the actual TV commercial.

What if, I asked our team, we made an animatic out of the Von Stroheim incident? Maybe, I suggested, we could make 1920's vintage-looking storyboards, and tell our story in a fashion that would be in keeping with the Golden Era of Hollywood. But, who could take an idea like that and make it work?

Enter storyboard artist Bryan Frank (see photos at top of this entry). An exceptional illustrator, Bryan is also a writer and an actor who recently appeared in the indy feature The Sensei. Bryan listened to our ideas about our "Von Stroheim sequence" and then sat down and immediately started drawing. The results, were a group of storyboard pages that told the story of the big fight.

We designed the storyboards from the very start, to work not just as conventional boards, but as visual effects. To do that, we asked Bryan to do things a little differently than he normally would. Instead of drawing panels like flat, funny page cartoons, we asked Bryan to make separate drawings of foreground and background elements. We were then able to take these elements, put them in Photoshop, and treat them like animation cels. You can see this in some of the accompanying photos, which show the original artwork, then a matte process by which we could add lighting effects and backgrounds to the scene.

Once we'd come up with a sequence we were fairly happy with, we passed off the storyboards to visual effects artist Jin Lee, who added an additional wrinkle to them. The results -- and you'll have to wait until you see the film to appreciate them -- are admittedly unconventional, but tell the story in a way we couldn't have otherwise. They're also a lot of fun!

We were so delighted with the results of our experiment, that we carried over the technique to another section of the film. More about that, in a future production journal entry.

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The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club ©2008-2010 Nick Spark Productions, LLC.